Campaign Enlivened by 11th-Hour Accusations
Austin’s election day is tomorrow. Throughout this week, some candidates for city council and mayor have accused opponents of impropriety. But this isn’t the first time in Austin politics that campaigns have lobbed last minute accusations.
On Monday, mayoral candidate Brigid Shea held a press conference accusing her opponent, current City of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, of violating the city’s campaign finance laws. Leffingwell’s campaign denies the charge. As of Thursday afternoon, the Shea campaign had not filed a formal complaint with the city’s Ethics Review Commission.
But it’s not surprising – candidates accusing other candidates of ethics violations is a move many campaigns make as election day approaches.
“You can’t buy something nobody’s selling,” says Peck Young, Director of Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies. He says such accusations – usually directed to the city’s ethics commission – are relatively common in city elections.
In last year’s bitterly-contested Place 3 run-off election, incumbent Randi Shade filed an ethics complaint against challenger Kathie Tovo. And in the 2009 mayoral election, Lee Leffingwell alleged fundraising impropriety on the part of opponent Brewster McCracken.
“This game of saying – at the eleventh hour when somebody has difficulty even responding to a charge – you’re going to accuse them of something, that’s just using ethics as a club,” he says. “That’s not doing anything to protect the integrity of the system. That’s just making political hay out of the fact that you’ve got something you can make look bad.”
But even if an alleged ethics violation was more than just a political attack, the city charter doesn’t provide any real enforcement right now. Ted Siff is a former member of the city’s Charter Revision Committee, which made recommendations to the council in late February. He says the ethics commission has power on paper, but doesn’t have the right tools.
“Our recommendation is to give the ethics review committee power to hear evidence and make recommendation to the city attorney as to whether or not the violation has occurred,” says Siff. Giving the ethics commission some teeth was one of several changes the Charter Revision Committee recommended.
Peck Young is skeptical about the need to give the commission more power. He says at the end of the day, it’s all about politics.
“So you can give all the teeth you want to an ethics body, or to any other quasi-judicial body or judicial body, [but] they’re not going to be sucked into a game of ‘gotcha’ by a political campaign,” Young says. “It doesn’t matter whether the ethics commission’s got teeth or not.”
Young says he wouldn’t be surprised to see even more accusations of ethics violations by candidates today and tomorrow, before Austin’s election day on Saturday, May 12.